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The 2010 Midterms Are Coming Back to Haunt Blue Michigan

Michigan’s new "right to work" law may be the most prominent piece of conservative legislation that Republicans there have passed in their lame-duck session, but it’s not the only one to land on Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk. Last week, in a harried final session of the Michigan House that lasted until 4:30 a.m. on Friday, the outgoing members of the state's 2010 conservative wave successfully passed an omnibus abortion bill that will do profound damage to already-diminished reproductive rights in Michigan; a bill that amounts to a massive tax break for corporations at the expense of local government; and a bill mandating voters to affirm, in writing, that they are citizens.

And, just hours before the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, the Michigan GOP caucus passed a bill that would allow gun owners permitted for concealed carry to bring concealed weapons into spaces that had previously been off limits—like churches, stadiums, day care centers, and schools.

Snyder indicated Friday afternoon that he may sign this last bill, pending changes to its language that he did not specify. In fact, the governor, whom the left once hailed as an honest broker in a party of wingnuts, is expected to sign off on much of the far-right agenda realized in Lansing early Friday morning. The genesis of Snyder’s sudden right-wingerism is disputable—whether these are sentiments he has held all along, or he caved to political pressure. Either way, the late-night dramatics in Lansing are an aching reminder of the damage done when Democrats up and down the ranks underprepared for and underestimated the strength of the midterm backlash. While the GOP received a teeth-kicking in this year’s elections and the Tea Party suffered major setbacks, their legislative achievements around the country will have ruinous consequences for years to come.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Michigan, an otherwise left-leaning state where some of the most extreme bills to result from the 2010 GOP wave are those just now reaching Snyder’s desk. This, after the November elections saw five members of the state GOP's swollen House ranks voted out of office. “It’s extremely frustrating,” said State Rep. Lisa Brown, a Democrat from the suburbs of Detroit, told me. Brown made headlines in June when she was censored by Republican leadership for uttering the word “vagina” during a debate on legislation that would become the omnibus abortion bill. Speaking by phone, over the din of the statehouse floor during Friday night's marathon session, she ticked off the list of conservative-backed bills en route to a full House vote: a bill to place onerous licensing requirements on abortion providers; a bill requiring a woman to pay an additional expense if she wants her insurance policy to cover abortions; and a bill allowing employers to deny insurance coverage for any form of health care they oppose on religious grounds.

All but the latter passed and are awaiting Snyder’s signature. Once, as expected, he signs off on these and a raft of other conservative policies, they will be ensconced in law for at least the next two years, as the majorities that the GOP achieved in both houses in 2010 proved too hard to undo in November. The impact of the abortion bill on Snyder’s desk, the biggest item to come out of Thursday night’s debate, is hard to overstate. Abortion law in Michigan has been largely unchanged since a set of restrictions were enacted in the late ‘90s. Now, Michigan joins a tide of states placing new and daunting restrictions on the procedure.

Brown expressed hope that, with the Democratic minority in the House now slightly larger, extreme bills like these will face more friction in the next legislative session. But their consequences won’t be mitigated anytime soon. “I can only hope for the future—that perhaps in another two years we will have another governor, more seats in the House, and more seats in the Senate,” Brown said.

As for the concealed-carry bill facing Snyder, it may be hard to game whether he will sign it or modify its provisions, which would allow holders of concealed-carry permits—available to “any nominally sane adult without a felony record,” as the Detroit Free Press described it—to bring guns to schools, day-care centers, and other properties that have not taken steps to specifically disallow concealed carry. But the fact that the bill is on his desk speaks volumes. Essentially, in the wake of a tragedy that highlights the urgent need for better gun control, Snyder is weighing a bill that places the onus on schools to protect themselves, rather than seeking ways to protect schools.

A conversation that Brown had with aides and colleagues, at lunch on Thursday, serves as a fitting summary for the situation. “This, in a state that just overwhelmingly voted to reelect Barack Obama?” Brown said at the time, she told me. “We were like, where’s a progressive state nearby that we can move to? And aren’t we supposed to be that state?”

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden